Can Conservatives Be Good Liberals?

Ever since the last presidential election, Republicans have been scrambling for a new identity. Many are lining up behind Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who paints himself as a new breed of politician: a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. His favorite line is, "Keep government out of people's pocketbooks . . . and out of their bedrooms." Democrats used the same theme during the campaign. Bill Clinton was going to be a "New Democrat," not an old tax-and-spend liberal. He would combine conservative economic policy with liberalism on social is-sues. But both sides are missing the point: Economic conservatism cannot survive with social liberalism. The whole idea is hopelessly self-contradictory. Think about it. On the individual level, we all know that a libertine lifestyle costs a lost of money. A life of sex, drugs, and partying can be sustained only by the wealthy. And if the same libertine attitude crosses over into their work lives, they won't stay wealthy for long. The same thing is true for societies. When libertine attitudes toward sex and drugs are widespread, when parents are lax in raising their children, when the work ethic declines, when crime increases—these things mean in-creased costs for welfare, medical care, remedial education, crime control. Government spending skyrockets. As Herb London wrote in the May issue of the American Spectator, low morals inevitably lead to high taxes. Add to that the cost of economic decline. Sociologist Daniel Bell argues that economic success requires certain values: self-discipline, prudence, delayed gratification. But today glossy magazines and prime time entertainment celebrate a radically contrary set of values: self-realization, self-gratification, immediate pleasure. In other words, the values that sustain our economic order are being eroded by libertine social attitudes. Bell calls this the "cultural contradiction of capitalism." You see, since its birth America has been a land of freedom and opportunity, offering liberty from the constraints of hierarchical, class-bound societies. But freedom from external constraints was possible only because Americans had strong internal constraints, derived from the Protestant ethic of hard work, delayed gratification, and family loyalty. Today, it's those internal constraints that social liberals are rebelling against. Liberals define freedom as the rejection of the Protestant ethic and traditional social conventions. It isn't freedom of religion they care about so much as freedom from religion. Yet without those internal moral constraints, families break down, crime goes up, the work ethic decays—and government is required to spend more and more money for programs to pick up the pieces. The idea of keeping government out of our pocketbooks and our bedrooms may sound attractive. It won the last election, and it's making headway among many Republicans. But we need to understand what it really means: that government will lend its approval to the libertine lifestyle. And that's something we cannot afford—either spiritually or economically. The promise that we can live however we choose and still keep the government within a reasonable budget is one promise no politician can fulfill.


Chuck Colson



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